Taffy Brodesser-Akner Is Ambivalent—and That’s How She Likes It
June 28, 2019 | Filed in: Woman of the Week
Tell your book club to brace itself. Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s debut novel, Fleishman Is in Trouble, came out on June 18, and it’s already a bestseller. This is all the more exciting since Taffy only gave herself six months to write it because she “didn’t know if she would be good at this.” [Ed. Note: She is very good at this.] Before trying her hand at fiction, Taffy made her mark writing for GQ and The New York Times, where her hilariously-rendered celebrity profiles show us what it’s like to be a deeply normal human in the presence of controversial characters like Gwyneth Paltrow, Bradley Cooper, and Nicki Minaj, to name a few. We chatted with her about the importance of ambivalence, empathy, and starting her day with TV in bed.
I WAS A TERRIBLE STUDENT, and for most of my childhood, I thought there was something wrong with me. My parents got divorced when I was six, so that was my big gripe for a while. Then when I was 12, my mother and sisters became very religious—and I did not—so I felt alienated by that. After high school, I spent a year at a university in Israel, and when I came back, a friend of mine had started film school at NYU. I was like, “Wait, you can do that? Instead of going to regular college, you can just go and study the thing you actually like?” So I entered NYU’s screenwriting program, and that’s where I finally found my people. It was wonderful to realize they existed.
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I WANTED TO WORK AS A SCREENWRITER, but I had no connections. I had done the internships that my school suggested, because I wanted to be compliant. But then I would find out that everyone else was interning at Saturday Night Live, and I was enraged. I was like, “Why am I interning for a publicist at a dance company?!” So getting into screenwriting was harder than I anticipated, but I did get a job as a news editor at a soap opera magazine. After a year, I was poached by a bigger soap opera magazine. And after a year there, I was laid off. But I really liked the work. It was mostly writing profiles of As the World Turns stars.
AFTER MY SON WAS BORN, I STARTED WRITING PERSONAL ESSAYS. That was my natural groove. I really understood how to make a point by examining: here is the trouble I’m in; here is how I got myself into it; here are the forces that were against me; but here is how I contributed to those forces. When I started reading writers like Vanessa Grigoriadis, I realized that writing a profile was just like writing a personal essay, except you’re writing it on behalf of someone else. You’re trying to understand them with the same love and forgiveness you would apply to yourself. That realization set me on fire.
GOOD CELEBRITY PROFILES HAVE TO BE AMBIVALENT, just as all news does. No one wants to read a story where I just chat with a celebrity and try to become her friend—that story doesn’t serve anyone. People want to read about what it’s really like to be in a room with that person, and that requires ambivalence. There are very few things I’ve written where I came away knowing for sure what the “right” answer was. If you take Gwyneth Paltrow, for example, it’s not interesting to hate her along with the rest of the world. It’s more interesting to explore, “Deep down, doesn’t everyone have a defensible point of view?” It always turns out that they do, unless they’re sexual harassers.
NICKI MINAJ FELL ASLEEP while I was interviewing her for GQ. That assignment was a huge opportunity for me, and I thought, “Oh great. They’re not going to run this because she didn’t give me any quotes.” So I had to get creative with how I wrote the story. There was no point in making fun of her, so I tried to find empathy. What makes someone fall asleep while they’re being interviewed? Well, she’s a huge star, she created something profound in our culture—of course she’s tired! That story got me my contract at GQ, but it also taught me that no matter what your subject does or doesn’t “give you” in an interview, you can still tell an interesting story if you do the work. After that, I knew who I was as a writer.
MY PLAYWRITING PROFESSOR IN COLLEGE emphasized that creating characters who were “likable” was a misnomer. They didn’t need to be likable; they just need to have energy. They have to be specific, with distinct personalities. Think about the movie As Good as It Gets—Jack Nicholson’s character isn’t likable, but he’s effective because he’s so specific.
I GAVE MYSELF SIX MONTHS TO FIGURE OUT if I could write a book. I wasn’t sure if I would be good at it, and that felt like the maximum amount of time I could spend on something that might end up being terrible. My children are in private school and their camps cost a bazillion dollars, so dedicating time to the novel, rather than to [well-paying] magazine articles, felt a bit like stealing from my family. But I’m a fast writer, so I just sat down and did it. To me, it wasn’t so different than writing a profile. This one was just really long, and instead of being about a celebrity, it was about an average guy going through a specific drama in his life.
CAN I BE HONEST and say that I dread getting dressed? I have a hard time figuring out how I want to present to the world. My relationship with my body is, like all the other relationships I have, ambivalent. I’ve always liked my frame—I’m tall and broad-shouldered. But then there’s my feet, which are flat and wide and big. Most brands don’t even make shoes in my size (11), which makes me feel like, “Was I born in the right world, or am I a monster, because my feet don’t even fit into regular shoes?” Body positivity is not my strong suit, but I work hard at it. In general, my style is very basic, and I’m into jumpsuits lately.”
I’M AT A POINT IN MY CAREER where I’m trying not to let work lead my life; I’m trying to have it be just a piece of my life, but it’s hard. I’ve spent the last 10 years, since I started doing this type of journalism, swimming upwards towards the light, and it’s been exhausting. Then the minute you’re allowed to relax a little, you realize you don’t know how to relax. Like, do I still have to take meetings with my editor at 7pm? Do I have to respond to emails right away? What’s actually urgent? How does it all fit together? I don’t have the answer, but it’s something I think about all the time.
ONE MORNING RITUAL THAT KEEPS ME SANE is this wonderful thing that my husband does. No matter how tired he is, no matter how much I do not deserve it, he brings me a cup of coffee in the morning. I think he should get some kind of Red Cross prize for this. But seriously, to find out every single morning that I am loved and that somebody is hoping my day starts off well—it’s profound.
I ALSO LOVE WATCHING TELEVISION IN BED with my children in the early morning, because then no matter what happens in the day, I remember that I had this wonderful beginning. I used to do the same thing with my mom—I’d crawl into her bed and we’d watch 15 minutes of Good Morning America. My kids are eight and 11, so we don’t watch the news. We watch The Incredible Hulk or the old Wonder Woman, and we love Supergirl. I had to re-watch every single episode of Thirtysomething on DVD for a piece I was writing, and my eight-year-old got really into it. He accidentally learned about abortion, but for the most part, it’s a great way to start the day.
Photographs by Heather Sten. Styling by Ismelka Gomez.